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The Conviction of Cora Burns

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Set in 1880s Birmingham, Carolyn Kirby’s stunning debut The Conviction of Cora Burns tells the story of Cora, a young woman born in a prison to a convicted criminal she never knew but from whom she fears she has inherited a violent nature. Perfect for fans of Sarah Schmidt, Anna Mazzola and Hannah Kent.

Cora was born in a prison. But is this where she belongs?

Birmingham, 1885.

Born in a gaol and raised in a workhouse, Cora Burns has always struggled to control the violence inside her.

Haunted by memories of a terrible crime, she seeks a new life working as a servant in the house of scientist Thomas Jerwood.

Here, Cora befriends a young girl, Violet, who seems to be the subject of a living experiment. But is Jerwood also secretly studying Cora…?

With the power and intrigue of Laura Purcell’s The Silent Companions and Sarah Schmidt’s See What I Have Done, Carolyn Kirby’s stunning debut takes the reader on a heart-breaking journey through Victorian Birmingham and questions where we first learn violence: from our scars or from our hearts.

320 pages, Paperback

First published March 21, 2019

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About the author

Carolyn Kirby

4 books24 followers
Carolyn Kirby's debut novel The Conviction of Cora Burns was chosen for awards by the Historical Writers Association and by the Specsavers/Crimefest debut crime fiction prize. Carolyn's second novel When We Fall was one of The Times' top 20 historical novels of 2020.
Originally from the northeast of England, Carolyn studied history at St Hilda’s College, Oxford and she is now on the organising committee for the annual St Hilda's Crime Fiction Weekend. To find out more, go to www.carolynkirby.com

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 151 reviews
Profile Image for Richard (on hiatus).
160 reviews176 followers
January 19, 2022
The Conviction Of Cora Burns by Carolyn Kirby is a vivid and atmospheric historical novel set in the latter part of the 19th century.
We first meet Cora as she’s about to leave her employ as a laundry maid at Birmingham lunatic asylum.
The asylum stands within a forbidding group of buildings that also includes Birmingham Gaol and the workhouse.
Cora has desperately unhappy experiences of each institution, and she leaves with worries about her sanity. She’s plagued by violent impulses and half submerged memories of a terrible crime in her past.
The teeming streets, the poverty, and the shocking inequality of Victorian Birmingham are frightening and bewildering to Cora as she emerges into the world, feeling ill equipped to cope. Her meagre belongings include a couple of pennies, a few rags, half of a medallion which she has always worn around her neck (its origin a mystery) and a letter of introduction to the household of a wealthy scientist where a position has been found (also mysterious!)
We gradually piece together Cora’s sorry story in true Dickensian fashion but with grit and reality, colourful but not always pleasant. We also experience some of the scientific thinking of the time with its unethical human experiments and rudimentary study of the eternal ‘nature versus nurture’ question.
This is a striking piece of fiction with well rounded characters, authentic period detail, a fast moving narrative and a compelling mystery at its heart.
Recommended for fans of high quality historical fiction.
Profile Image for Paromjit.
2,500 reviews24.5k followers
March 10, 2019
The Conviction of Cora Burns is a remarkably accomplished debut from Carolyn Kirby, a gothic piece of atmospherical historical fiction set in the Birmingham of the Victorian era. She relates the story of Cora's life in a narrative that goes back and forth in time, born in prison to a convict, brought up in a workhouse where she forms a friendship with Alice, and works in a asylum. This is a dark and intense emotional roller coaster of a read, with a central character that is flawed and at times her actions make for uncomfortable reading, but the odds are stacked against her, and she fears the violence within herself. She is taken on as a servant by the scientist, Thomas Jerwood, a man interested in studying people and their behaviours. She gets better acquainted with Violet, his ward, and begins to harbour suspicions as to what exactly her role is and of the circumstances in which she came to be employed by Jerwood. This is a story of loss, friendship, identity, intrigue, secrets, and morally questionable science.

Kirby writes a multilayered, complex and well constructed novel with rich descriptions of Victorian poverty, stink, the deeply entrenched class divisions that leave the poor with such few choices, the asylums, and the historical period's morality. Her characterisation is excellent, particularly that of the hard edged Cora, of the trials and tribulations she faced in her life, all of which have helped to shape her into who she is, and the secrets that lie in her past. She is a memorable character, one that will insist on lingering long after the reader has finished reading the novel. I especially liked the way Kirby painted a picture of her interior life, and the debate between nature and nurture. A brilliant read which I recommend to readers interested in this historical period and appreciate the darkest aspects of the time. Many thanks to Oldcastle Books and No Exit Press for an ARC.
Profile Image for MaryannC. Book Freak.
481 reviews106 followers
June 6, 2020
Shame on me because I pushed this aside at one point earlier in the year missing out finishing this great read, but it's done thankfully.
Set in Birmingham, England in the 1880's, just released from gaol for a heinous crime, Cora Burns takes a position as a servant in the home of Mr. Jerwood, a scientist conducting his own experiment of whether violence is an inherited trait. Cora is also searching for her lost sister, with a missing half of a medallion that she wears to go by on as she tries to piece together the clues in finding her. During her search, memories of the crime she was accused of come back to haunt her and Cora begins to wonder if her own mother whom she never knew could have passed on the violent tendencies she seems to have. This was atmospheric of the era and had a gothic feel to it.
Profile Image for Sarah.
2,549 reviews162 followers
October 17, 2018
I'm not usually a lover of historical books apart from ones to do with the war, reading the blurb for this one though it really intrigued me and I knew I wanted to find out more about Cora's story. It didn't disappoint.

Needless to say that Cora didn't have the best start in life being born in gaol. Then to spend her childhood in a workhouse, I don't think things could be any worse. The story itself flicks between past and present so we can better understand and get to know Cora. I have to admit I wasn't to sure about Cora to start with. There is definitely a dark side to her that made me very wary. Whilst I can't say I fully agreed with some of her actions, I quite admired the person she became.

I think this is a story very much about how we react to our start in life and how events can mould us into the person we become. It's one that really makes you think. I found the whole era fascinating and whilst glad I didn't live in those times, it does give a great insight into what life was like back then. 

The Conviction Of Cora Burns is a fascinating insight into the 1800's and into one woman's life. Cora's life really draws the reader in and I struggled to put the book down. The story takes some dark twists and turns and I was totally engrossed in what I was reading. A very clever debut novel and an author I will certainly be keeping my eye out for.

My thanks to No Exit Press for an advanced readers copy of this book. All opinions are my own and not biased in anyway.
Profile Image for Cathy.
1,142 reviews205 followers
April 2, 2019
In her debut novel, Carolyn Kirby has set herself the ambitious task of handling multiple timelines and introducing the reader to a central character, Cora Burns, who at times exhibits both the best and worst aspects of human nature. However, to my mind, the author meets this challenge ably. True, the narrative, frequently shifting back and forth in time over the space of twenty years or so, requires some concentration from the reader but this effort will be amply repaid in my opinion.

The mystery surrounding Cora’s early life and the nature of her crime also demands a willingness on the part of the reader to allow themselves, as it were, to collect all the disparate pieces of the jigsaw and exercise patience for the final picture to be revealed. To continue my analogy a little further, expect to find you have some of the pieces in entirely the wrong place or to discover they belong in a completely different jigsaw altogether!

I mentioned earlier that Cora’s character involves both light and dark – at times, very dark. There are examples of tenderness, such as her patient creation of a doll’s gown, or her attempts at friendship with Violet, the young girl growing up in the Jerwood household. But there is also very dark, such as Cora’s frequent imaginings of violence against others (and sometimes not just imaginings) and her guilt about the terrible crime she fears she may have committed, an act so horrific she has purged it from her memory. Despite this, the reader (well, this one at least) can’t help rooting for the clever, feisty and spirited Cora, hoping she might be able to move on from her troubled past and make a happier life for herself. I think the author’s skill is always to make us believe this is a possibility without making us completely sure.

The exploration of the debate between nature versus nurture is a key theme of the book. There are those, like Thomas Jerwood, who hold fixed views on the matter and whose certainty in the rightness of their position and the ends to which they are prepared to go to prove it are positively frightening and seemingly have no regard for the wellbeing – mental or physical – of others. The power of social position, financial clout and primitive views about the treatment of prisoners and those suffering with mental illness mean they can get away with just about anything. On the other hand, there are those, thankfully, who hold more enlightened views.

So we have light and dark again and I was struck by how much duality plays a part in the book. For example, key to the plot is the use of photography in which negatives are transformed into positives. And, in a neat touch by the author, the taking of a photograph bookends the novel.

I could go on talking about the themes explored in the book because, aside from the intriguing mystery concerning Cora’s past, The Conviction of Cora Burns has so many other layers. Oh, and you can throw in a few Gothic elements as well. (Did Mrs. Dix make anyone else think of Grace Poole in Jane Eyre?) It all adds up to an impressive debut and an intensely satisfying read that I can wholeheartedly recommend to readers who like their historical fiction to have real depth.
Profile Image for Thebooktrail.
1,546 reviews279 followers
March 17, 2019

Visit the locations in the novel

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Deliciously dark and gorily gothic. Cora Burns. A favourite character of 2018 even though the book isn't out until 2019. Is that allowed? Yes it is as the book and Cora are so good.

What a fascinating read! Nature v nuture, experiments in laboratories, photographs which can maybe reveal your inner soul,and spooky things going on behind the walls of a seemingly respectable house.

This one has more twists and turns than a very very twisty thing!

I think I may have applauded the end.

Book two now please!


Cora Burns – now there’s a character you won’t forget in a hurry. A strange and complex girl this one. Born in prison and now working as a laundry girl, it seems luck is not on her side. But what she lacks in wealth and circumstance, she makes up for in sheer determination and grit. This girl is more than capable of kicking someone who might try to hurt her.

There’s a lot going on in this novel but it’s so well written that it never feels overdone. The writing is fluid, gothic and really easy to read. It’s compelling. It’s like walking into a lab and being amazed at all the jars – in each one there’s a story, a concoction of sorts, but Cora is at the centre of it all and holds all the threads together. A very strong and impressive character and her world is one I wanted to linger in for as long as I could. 300 pages in the proof copy left me wanting more!

Cora goes from the asylum to a house owned by the strange Mr Jerwood. He takes pictures of people, studies them to see which characteristics criminals share for example. How nature and nuture can tell us about society. There’s a lot of fascinating issues in this book. Dead things in jars too. I was like a kid in a sweet shop – so vivid were the gothic images.

You know something weird is going on in that lab. But as Cora finds out, is she the one being studied? She has a past she wants to find out more about, a locket she keeps safe. But is life ever about one path?

This one has more twists and turns than the twistiest of paths!

I think I may have applauded the end.

Book two now please!
Profile Image for Ellen Gail.
826 reviews368 followers
December 28, 2019
The only word I can think to describe this book is unpleasant.

This is a story about violence. Who does it and why - it's the whole nature vs nurture argument. Can someone who is instinctually incited to violence ever change? Can a single moment of violence define a life? Should it?

It's thematically interesting at least - identity, duplication, violence, memory. And the historical details seem to be well developed. My problems with the book are mainly character related. That's not to say there aren't pacing issues, and the timelines / flashbacks could be smoother. But that all plays second fiddle to the bigger character issues.

And there's a very big thing that I have to talk about regarding this book. One that absolutely effected my enjoyment in the novel and my attitude towards Cora, our main character. I'll go into detail in the spoiler section, but broadly I'll say that the main character's actions make her impossible to like. Not just a complex or difficult character; one who is reprehensible.

All of the above, especially the spoilery stuff, makes the ending ring false. It's not a typical "happy ending", but it is predictable and ultimately unsatisfying. It a resolution that feels unearned and leaves a bad aftertaste.

My biggest issues with The Conviction of Cora Burns are with Cora Burns herself. And in a story where not much else stands out, I can't loathe the main character, feel unimpressed with the structure, and have a positive outlook at the end.

I'm happy to leave Cora and her convictions behind.

Thanks to Dzanc Books and Edelweiss for the digital review copy.
Profile Image for Tracy Shephard.
857 reviews60 followers
October 6, 2018
Rarely does a book come along that is so filled with intrigue, secrets and sadness that it makes your heart ache.

I absolutely loved The Conviction of Cora Burns, Cora is a fabulous character and I just loved getting to know her.

A tense and emotive read, I savoured every page and all too soon it was over.

Cora is a fiesty girl with heart, but her life with it's hard knocks and unfortunate circumstances makes her tough and untrusting. Her tragic and unfortunate existence was such a joy to read and the author portrayed her beautifully.

After leaving The Borough Lunatic Asylum, the only home she ever knew, she is employed by Thomas Jerwood. He is an odd character, and as a scientist he makes studies of people and their behaviour. he involves Cora in these studies and gets her to do certain things to aid his research.  Cora discovers a secret that concerns his case study Violet, a young girl who lives at The Larches where Cora works.

Cora has never forgotten her childhood friend Alice Salt, and it is this friendship that is at the core of the novel. As a reader, we are made curious by these girls and their relationship, and also of Cora's only possession, a medallion, that seems to be the key to her heritage. But oh my God. the truth, the twists and the reality of this stunning debut left me in pieces.  I was really moved by this wonderful wonderful book.

This is a beautifully written novel. It is descriptive and takes you to the stench of the streets and the poverty from which Cora comes.

It is by far one of the best reads I have ever come across and one I will always remember and recommend.
Profile Image for Joanne Tinkler (Mamajomakes).
225 reviews7 followers
October 18, 2019
Cora Burns has a burning violence within her that she struggles to control. Was she born with this emotion or has it developed from her environment? Born in a gaol and raised in a Union workhouse, Cora’s beginning is cold and unloving though she has her friend Alice who she is as close to as sisters are to one another. One day Cora and Alice commit a horrendous crime that lands Cora in confinement away from Alice, never to see her again. Fast forward around eighteen years we find Cora in a between maid situation in the house of a scientist whilst befriending a young girl, Violet. Violet appears to be a living case study within the household but as Cora gets to know the girl better, it rekindles memories that were so well hidden in Cora’s mind. Memories too terrible to remember.

I looked forward to reading this as I love history and I love a good historical fiction book and it didn’t disappoint. The story unfolded gradually in a softly, softly manner but it didn’t feel slow or chore like. Surprisingly I liked Cora Burns very much though I can’t say that I liked many of her actions. The descriptions of the gaol, asylum and workhouse were very believable and at times I felt like I was a fly on the wall.

Many thanks go to No Exit Press and NetGalley for giving me the opportunity to read this book for my honest opinion.
Profile Image for Caroline.
212 reviews108 followers
June 8, 2020
Now that’s what I call a Gothic Victorian Tale! Seriously dark, down right disturbing at times, full of atmosphere, grit, grime and suspense. From workhouses to gaols and insane asylums, it goes to all those terrifying places in Victorian history. I got completely lost in this; a cracking debut novel.
Profile Image for Tripfiction.
1,526 reviews188 followers
March 25, 2019
Novel set in Victorian BIRMINGHAM

‘Set in the 1880s in Birmingham, this is an atmospheric and gripping novel about a determined young woman who strives to overcome the hardship and violence that plagues her and the dark, fractured memories which haunt her. With a gritty setting, and a fantastic historical and social context, ‘The Conviction of Cora Burns’ explores themes of motherhood, mental illness, memories and the concept of nature versus nurture.’

October 1885. Cora, born in a gaol and raised in a workhouse, has always struggled to control the violence inside her. Haunted by memories of a terrible crime, she has been offered a new life working as a servant in the house of scientist Thomas Jerwood, in the suburb of Spark Hill, some 3 miles distant. But will she take up the position, joining a staff of four indoor servants and on terms of just £8 per annum, ‘half what she’d got as a laundress’?

I followed in the footsteps of author and character on a cold January morning in Birmingham, seeking out Cora’s path as she was finally released from the institutions that defined her childhood and adolescence. Read my On Literary Location blog post for TripFiction here.

After some demeaning false starts in the city, Cora reluctantly takes up the post offered in Mr Jerwood’s household. At The Larches, we meet a host of interesting characters: scullery maid Ellen, who is shaking her petticoats at gardener Samuel; housekeeper Mrs Dix; the kindly Cook, who has her own buried secrets; upstairs ‘the missus’ hides in her chamber, mad and shouting only for Anna; Mr. Jerwood, forever buried in his research papers; and, most intriguingly, young Violet, seemingly the object of a scientist’s experiments…

In parallel with Cora’s new situation, the author deftly weaves in the unfolding story of her time in the Union workhouse some 11 years earlier, where she and her sister Alice may have committed a terrible crime. And research papers and letters from Mr. Jerwood and a madhouse Medical Officer begin to hint at what may have happened to Cora and her family in those dark early years.

I savoured every page of The Conviction of Cora Burns. Carolyn Kirby has created a lead character who is both inherently bad, and yet not without some kindness and hope. The story is multi-layered, discussing wide-ranging themes, including nature versus nurture, mental illness, memories – whether real or false – class structure and motherhood.

And all this is told with an authenticity of language, place and time that can only reflect a huge investment in research by the author:

‘Boot soles gaped and flapped like hungry fish but didn’t seem to slow Letty down. Sh e weaved over cobbles and kerbs, steering Cora against a wall at the tight corner of Meriden Street as a horse tram clipped by. Cora sensed that the girl was more at home amongst the carts and costermongers and dingy corner shops than she would ever be. ‘

‘They turned into Coventry Street and even though it was Sunday, a sour breeze blew up from the vinegar brewery.’

The Conviction of Cora Burns is Carolyn Kirby’s debut novel, It was begun in 2013 on a writing course at the renowned Faber Academy in London. I hope we don’t have to wait so long for the next one....
Profile Image for Tara.
Author 21 books530 followers
July 18, 2019
This is a tough one for me to review. 3.5 stars. Well-researched historical novel, very atmospheric. Dark, gritty exploration of the underclass in Victorian England. Takes a look at nature vs. nurture through the main character's stay in a workhouse, an asylum, and a jail. I liked the lack of romance in the book. I appreciated the discussion of strength in a woman translating at that time into waywardness, even insanity. Women were locked up for depression and intense grief and for not following the line in marriages. I also liked the layering of this mystery, told in flash backs.

However, the flash backs could get confusing at times, some threads were not resolved, the ending too perfect and predictable (for me), and the main character, who does a grisly act that I could not even read (it was truly horrifying), somehow magically becomes all better. I felt the author is a fabulous writer, but did not pay enough attention to basic psychology, which is a must for a book like this. Cora at times is psychopathic, and even possibly schizophrenic. Yet it all ends well. The reasoning for this is not justified in the plot. Simply being motherless and in the poorhouse does not justify psychotic behavior.

Still, I kept reading, overlooked the flaws, and very much enjoyed what she did accomplish. I would read her next book.
Profile Image for Indieflower.
312 reviews89 followers
December 26, 2019
A cracking historical fiction novel with a whiff of gothic, which of course, is always a plus point for me. I loved the main character Cora, even though she did have some disturbing and violent tendencies (and except for horrifying and inexcusable incident in her childhood) I felt she had a strong survival instinct and reacted badly due to this. After all, I imagine growing up in a Victorian workhouse would've been a dog eat dog environment to say the least. Some readers have found her unlikeable but I admired her grit and determination, and the flashes of tenderness in her nature and I thoroughly rooted for her to overcome the awful cards she had been dealt. As with many books, there were some unlikely events and coincidences, but for me, the story was strong enough to overcome them and I loved the satisfying end. All in all, a very impressive debut and I hope there will be more to follow from this author, 4½ stars rounded up to 5.
September 25, 2019
An examination of nature vs nurture in Victorian Birmingham with a gritty and flawed protagonist.

Carolyn Kirby’s debut is historical fiction of the most satisfying kind, teeming with atmosphere and exquisitely rendered with a flawed, complex and fiercely determined protagonist. A multilayered narrative weaving back and forth between decades fits together like the pieces in a jigsaw puzzle to illustrate one extraordinary young woman’s journey.

1885 and Cora Burns prepares to leave Birmingham Gaol with plenty of attitude and her only chance of a future beyond crime or destitution dependent on the promised offer of employment as a between maid (‘tweeny’) in a gentleman’s house. The Larches is the home of an amateur scientist and prison photographer by the name of Thomas Jerwood and his bed-ridden, neurotic wife. Told from her earliest days that she was ‘a bad lot’, Cora was born in gaol to a convict and immediately transferred to the adjoining Union workhouse and her chequered history includes a spell working within the laundry asylum ahead of her own internment.

One pivotal vicious act as a workhouse resident in 1874 incited by her sole friend and fellow resident, Alice Salt, is shrouded in doubt with Cora’s own memory of the events surrounding it confusing and disturbing. Fearing that this incident might explain much of her inner turmoil and quick recourse to violence Cora seeks a definitive answer to just what did happen with Alice meanwhile sparing few thoughts for her convict mother, Mary. However Cora’s interactions with Mr Jerwood, his raving wife who calls her by the name of Annie and the young ward within the house, Violet, leave her with far more questions than merely the puzzle of her own past. When Violet befriends Cora and the Master engages his new hired help in testing the moral fibre of his young charge through a series of somewhat scientific experiments, Cora determines to discover just what is going on and how the composite images her employer fixates over fit into the story. Beginning to suspect that she and young Violet are perhaps mere cogs in Jerwood’s scientific investigation she determines to obtain answers.

Together with Cora’s search for Alice, clarification of the childhood act that defined her, the mystery of just what is going on within The Larches and why the Master specifically chose to employ Cora, intrigue is maintained throughout the novel via an array of different threads. Culminating is a meaningful denouement the result is an undoubtedly ambitious novel executed with sensitivity. The scientific treatises of Thomas Jerwood are interwoven throughout Cora’s own of story and includes his published essays detailing his investigations to statistically measure human nature and attempt to demonstrate that there is a connection between physiognomy and felony. Throw in the 1885 research journals of Dr Farley, an assistant medical officer at Birmingham Asylum, and his early attempts at hypnotising long-term patients including Mary Burns and the result is a fascinating multi-narrative look at past and present in the lives of a mother and daughter. By including Jerwood’s essays and Dr Farley’s research notes directly instead of providing a more simplistic summary it brings much to the atmosphere and period feel of the story.

Whether it provides an answer to the question of whether Cora was ‘born to bad’ and predestined to a criminal life or whether it dictates her future lies within our gritty young protagonists hands. Whilst Cora might be a complicated and flawed heroine it is hard not to have sympathy with all that she has experienced and vie for her overturning the odds and coming out on top. Resourceful, hard-working and shrewd, her actions as a workhouse teenager are admittedly heinous. As the novel progresses the reader to start to see and appreciate how the bigger picture it is all slotting together meaning the book is one that rewards readers perseverance. The end result is not only an thorough understanding of the central character but goes some way to mitigate for her actions and undoubtedly to explain much of the violence within her.

A novel and heroine to remember, an exploration of class structure in the Victorian era and a fascinating look at early look at heredity, life experience and upbringing on human development by attempting to measure a persons character statistically.

With thanks to Trip Fiction who provided me with a free copy of this novel in exchange for my honest and unbiased opinion.
Profile Image for Stephanie.
845 reviews12 followers
April 3, 2019
I have read a lot of historical fiction but I don’t think I’ve ever read one where the lead character affected me quite like Cora did. She was a character who I wasn’t sure about at the beginning, I had a combination of dislike and fear but gradually that changed and I wanted her to be accepted, find happiness and some answers and I adored her.

She was a character who despite her very hard life thought of others. Her loyalty to a few of the characters in this novel wouldn’t have been entertained by many in her situation. One of them, much older than the other was somebody whose life story I would have loved to know.

It’s not only the characters, it’s also the setting. I had no idea there was a bullring in Birmingham in the 1880s. I googled it whilst reading and was very surprised by the results. It felt different to read an English historical novel that wasn’t set in and around London and given more time I would like to know which, if any of the other locations were real.

The more scientific sides of the novel were also interesting, how people who were mentally ill were treated and that there were some who worked in the profession who were more understanding than others. How experiments were carried out to try and find answers to human behaviour, regardless of whether their methods were immoral. The photography storyline was another that I spent time looking at. Composite photography was something that I had heard of but didn’t know much about.

Thank you Carolyn Kirby to opening my eyes to a lot of things, this book was a reminder that you can learn a lot by reading.
Profile Image for G.J. Minett.
Author 4 books87 followers
November 5, 2018
Oh wow! Read this on a strong recommendation from a friend whose opinion I respect - I was certainly not disappointed. Amazingly it's a debut novel but the quality of the writing is so assured that you'd never know it. It's not a crime novel in the traditional sense but it contains enough criminal behaviour to make the reader boil with rage. It's not a thriller either, the author preferring instead to draw us in through the beauty of the writing and the skill with which details are held back when lesser writers might dive in too soon. The descriptions are so detailed that you have to marvel at the extent of the research that has gone into this - you can almost smell the squalor and flinch at the harshness of the life these characters led. As for the setting, think Downton (downstairs) meets Elizabeth Gaskell and you're in the right territory . . . although in terms of quality the balance lies firmly with the latter.
This is set in a twenty-year period in the latter half of the 19th Century and deals with a number of important themes whilst delivering a brilliantly plotted and wholly engrossing story which centres on a deeply troubled young woman who has already experienced an asylum and prison and is adjusting to her first taste of a 'normal', non-institutionalised existence. Inevitably the baggage she is carrying makes this transition desperately difficult and she knows that before she can move on she's going to have to face up to the nightmarish sequence of events that have brought her to this pass . . . and in particular her own personal share of the responsibility for what happened.
Much as I'd love to offer more details about the plot, I can't do so without spoiling the many surprises along the way and it would be criminal to deny the reader the chance to fall under the spell which Carolyn Kirby succeeds in casting. I'll just say that it all hangs together perfectly and is delivered with an assurance and articulacy that many more experienced writers would die for.
Really, really recommend this.
Profile Image for Liz Barnsley.
3,385 reviews975 followers
October 24, 2018
Intriguing, very dark gothic historical fiction, a great debut with some beautifully immersive writing. Maybe slightly over long.

Recommended for lovers of historical novels and crime. Full review to follow.
April 7, 2019
‘To believe in her future, she must uncover her past’

The Conviction of Cora Burns is the debut novel from Carolyn Kirby. Just published on 21st March by No Exit Press, it is described as ‘a stunning debut that takes the reader on a heart-breaking journey through Victorian Birmingham and questions where we first learn violence: from our scars or from our hearts’

Historical fiction is always a very informative genre but I think Carolyn Kirby takes it one step further as we explore the story of Cora Burn, using case works and studies by eminent, although fictional, medical professionals of the time. Their thoughts are scattered in document style, like those of a medical journal, throughout the book, bringing a real authenticity to the case of Cora Burns.

So who was Cora Burns? That in itself is a very difficult question to answer. Born in a gaol to a mother who was imprisoned there at the time, Cora grew up moving between institutions, witnessing events that no young girl should be exposed to at such a young age. Her experiences impacted her life greatly, never having lived in an environment of warmth and love. When Cora finally reached the age to depart the institutional setting, she was confused, torn between her reality and her thoughts. She was given an opportunity of work in the home of a prominent scientist and, although skeptical about it, Cora had very little choice but to accept. This was no ordinary household though and Cora was soon faced with more than one difficult situation to handle. Her approach to dealing with these obstacles was very heavily influenced by her history but the question really being asked throughout the book is within the concept of nature versus nurture. Was Cora inevitably going to react as she did or could other external influences have directed her to an alternative outcome?

The Conviction of Cora Burns is quite a fascinating read, at times reading like an official study in human behaviour. The sense of time and place is brilliantly portrayed throughout the novel, giving the reader a real experience of life in the Victorian era. The poverty, the hunger, the smells, the fears, all described with a captivating narrative. There is a Gothic element to Cora’s story, adding to the intrigue and atmosphere of the tale.

The Conviction of Cora Burns is the story of a young woman who has various sides to her personality. She is wicked, violent and quite fierce yet also prone to bouts of melancholy and upset. Cora Burns is confused and as the years pass, her judgement is clouded and her memories blurred. Cora Burns is a tragic figure, a person surrounded by heartbreak and sorrow, a person you cannot but feel was dealt a very tough hand, one that was sure to affect her approach to life.

The Conviction of Cora Burns is a compelling tale, one that will pull at your heart-strings. A very insightful and intelligent debut, a must for all lovers of Victorian history and for all historical fiction buffs.
Profile Image for Jessica B.
64 reviews2 followers
April 21, 2019
This book was just too compelling to put down once I started it. I think historical thriller is my second favorite genre after science fiction! This was a fantastic debut and I highly recommend it to other historical thriller lovers. I so enjoyed the nature VS nurture debate woven through the book and the commentary of classism. I received this book for review from the publisher.
Profile Image for Jan.
759 reviews254 followers
February 5, 2019
Brilliant historical novel about a woman convicted of a terrible crime who seeks to unravel her own past to discover her true nature. Full review to follow as part of blog tour.
Profile Image for Mark Tilbury.
Author 24 books258 followers
April 25, 2021
Cora, born and raised in a gaol, then sent to work in an asylum, knows nothing but poverty and hard work for no reward. When she gets the offer of a position in a big house, she hopes her fortunes are about to change.

Set in the late 1800s, this historical crime story is very well told. It not only keeps your thoughts on Cora, but also the treatment of the poor in Victorian England. The story moves back and forth from Cora aged 20 and her childhood. There are also (fictional) extracts from scientific journals exploring the possibility of classifying different types of criminality using facial features.

As I read the story I realised that the title of the book has a double meaning, and that with each chapter, my opinions on Cora changed. By the time I'd finished the book I was left thinking that the argument about criminality and nature vs nurture is still on-going, and that we can learn a lot from Cora - make yourself the person you want to be, not what society deems you should be.
Profile Image for Melanie.
543 reviews298 followers
April 23, 2019
I do love a book set where I live and so was eager to read it. For a debut, it was really, really good. There were some things in characterisation I thought could have been done a bit better, the second half dragged a bit in places, but you know, a solid, good debut and I hope she will write more.
Profile Image for Lel Budge.
1,397 reviews26 followers
November 2, 2018
Written by Carolyn Kirby, The Conviction of Cora Burns is set in 1880’s Birmingham. Cora has had a difficult start in life after being born in a Gaol, then sent to the workhouse and as she grew up, at sixteen was sent to work as a laundress at the Asylum.

Her childhood friend, Alice Salt was a bad influence and many awful things happened, which Cora cannot fully recall. Cora ends up in Gaol herself for 19 months but when released I sent to work for the Jerwoods as a between maid. There she settles in and is good at her job, but she meets a young girl Violet, who is part of an experiment into nature versus nurture by Mr Jerwood.

Cora begins to believe there is more going on in the house and that she is involved somehow as the mistress of the house calls her Annie in her more lucid moments.

This is historical fiction with gothic feel, the dark atmosphere of the time, with women being admitted to asylums for depression or ‘hysteria’ and generally treated poorly. The characters are well written and rounded and Cora for all her ‘issues‘ is likeable and you have such sympathy for her. The language of the book is beautiful, the intrigue believable and it comes to a truly satisfying end. I can see this being a must read and a favourite for book clubs everywhere
Profile Image for Emily Ross.
1,085 reviews23 followers
April 30, 2020
Thank you to the publishers for providing an ARC of this book through NetGalley.

Okay, I admit it, I requested this book because it's set in my home city. I really liked that it highlighted women in the Victorian era and how their strength was seen in a negative way and I really liked the contrast through the book of Cora and Violet as well as Cora and Cook.

However, there were bits that I skimmed, mainly because they were really boring and sometimes the flashbacks were quite confusing and I was left wondering what does this even have to do with the plot? The plot itself was relatively obvious from the first quarter of the book and I found that the ending felt too perfect. Cora does terrible things during the book, and yet she is perfect by the end. In a book like this, basic psychology is a must.

One of the major downsides is that maybe the author should have set the novel in a different town, as there were little bits here and there that showed that she wasn't entirely familiar with Birmingham in the era, which pulled me out of the story a bit.
Profile Image for Abby Slater- Fairbrother.
530 reviews29 followers
March 26, 2019
Step into Victorian Birmingham and the life of Cora Burns. . .
If You Dare?

The Conviction Of Cora Burns, tells the life story of Cora Burns. We start with her humble beginnings, born in a gaol and raised in a workhouse. To Cora, eventually starting a position as a ‘between maid’ for Thomas Jerwood Esq. The novel spans 1874-1886, we get a real sense of who Cora was, is and who she intends to be, given the right chance.

The novel is beautifully written, the author brings alive industrial Birmingham, you can almost spell the city if it wasn’t for the fact I was gripped with tension and holding my breath. During the last 50/100 pages, I found myself having to think ‘take a deep breath’, I just became so engrossed with Cora and her story. When the ending is finally revealed I wanted to read the whole novel again!

The novel opens in 1885 with 20yr old Cora being freed from a life of servitude at the Borough Lunatic Asylum. She has served her 19 month sentence and awaits release.
When she is released and as she makes her way to Thomas Jerwoood’s residence we become aware of the very few options open to women in Victorian England. With the obvious one (working girl) Cora firmly rules out. She hasn’t hit rock bottom YET!

The novel details Cora’s upbringing within the workhouse and her best friend (sisterly relationship) with Alice Salt. It is this friendship which gets Cora through the darkest times of her childhood.
‘It’s best not to have a mother. Everyone who does can’t stop blubbing’ – Cora

Cora is tough, feisty and yet you just know she is carrying some emotional baggage. Yet, despite her not being a ‘model citizen’ I warmed to her instantly. I liked her and I rooted for her throughout the entire story.

Thomas Jerwood is a man whose morals we cannot quite guess. We the reader become aware of his research and experiments much before Cora. But even then, I wasn’t sure where it would all lead and what it would ultimately build up to.

‘A baby is no more likely to be born to crime than he is to emerge from his mother’s womb able to play a polka’ –
Mr JW Armstrong

‘An addiction to crime runs through the generations of a family as surely as short stature or red hair’ –
Thomas Jerwood Esq

We also follow the research journals of Dr David Farley M.D the assistant medical officer of the Birmingham asylum. Which I found incredibly fascinating.
My previous employment was in the mental health sector and a huge part of our study would be to study theories of yesteryear. Whether it be the kind and humane treatments of The York Retreat or the callous abuse that took place at Bedlam.
I found the novel to be very authentic and the author had really researched into the individual viewpoints we see in the novel.

Life at the Jerwood residence is far from easy for Cora, when she eventually makes ONE friend Violet. It seems a friendship set to be doomed. Cora is wary of all strangers. . .
‘Nothing of what went on in the servants hall at the asylum must ever happen here. She’d die first’ – Cora
Despite my initial liking of Cora and the way in which she carries herself. I did feel that we the reader, never truly know what she is capable of.

An OUTSTANDING debut novel that covers many aspects of the Victorian era. From the class structure to the poverty inflicted by industrial greed; to the stigma surrounding mental health.
5* Genius
Profile Image for Em-Bee.
58 reviews10 followers
April 1, 2019
I loved Cora... I wanted to and I did.  I know that some reviewers have found her sassy and violent and difficult to like as a main protagonist.  But I completely understand why she feels the need to be so.  At the end of the day, she's had no parents to bring her up and she's been housed, made to work, treated like dirt and threatened with violence.  She's also very much alone in the world with mixed influences around her, so I can't blame her too much for wanting to defend herself, every now and again.

It's an interesting 'nature vs nurture' argument - who does she get these violent tendencies from? I'm very much in the 'learned behaviour' rather than the 'genetics' camp generally, although scientifically I know there are arguments for both... anyway I digress, I'll come back to that later.

Her story jots back between childhood (the opener is a gruesome throwback to her birth in the jail), and the 'present day', and is very much a search for her  identity and a desire to know more about her lineage, particularly her mother. She leaves a picture of herself in a local shop at the beginning of the novel, hoping that her mother will see it and contact her. She's had an interesting start to her life - raised in the workhouses, then finding herself working in an asylum and befriending the people there.

There are some violent parts in the story, which I personally found added to the narrative, as these things did happen in the workhouses... kids were a commodity, and if they died, the foremen, well they didn't care.

What I did really appreciate were the nods to the classics of the Gothic genre - the diary entries from Dr Farley and Mr Jerwood hark of Dracula and Frankenstein (another classic nature vs nurture piece by a female author) - their details of psychological theory and science are really interesting to read in between the main narrative of Cora's story, and speak volumes about how women were treated if they behaved out of line.

The triple meaning of the title is very clever indeed - is she convicted of a crime / convicted to the asylum / convicted to find her mother... love it.  I can't say much more about the novel for fear of dropping spoilers and revealing much more, because there are so many little sparkling details interspersed across the pages. But it's a fantastic immersive piece of historical fiction. I can't recommend this highly enough, and for a debut novel, it's a cracker....
Profile Image for Sayantoni Das.
168 reviews1,656 followers
June 11, 2019
The Conviction of Cora Burns by Carolyn Kirby is a literary thriller set in the Victorian Era. This novel has surprised me beyond wits as it was from the very beginning when I started to gasp in bewilderment. Cora Burns is a woman who was born in a cell, known nothing of her estranged mother other than the fact that she was a criminal, and brought up in a workhouse under harsh circumstances. On her release from the Birmingham Gaol, she goes on an untiring search of her long lost sister Alice Salt, her only friend in the workhouse. With little to no memory, she finds herself in quite a hard spot as her past jumbles up in knots the further she chases after it.
The story deals with grave social concerns with the backdrop of an era known lesser to deal in such cases. Cora is confused by the unkempt violence gurgling beneath her skin and wonders where it came from. Was it from the genes of her mother, or was it from the way she was brought up? Nature and Nurture play a condescending debate thereon. How far can human conscience fight the primal urge to conflict harm? This psychological thriller pokes at some of the very sensitive areas where humanity is under threat. Cora's character grows indomitably throughout the story where she learns and discovers things shocking and breaking enough to alter her entire being. This book was everything I was looking for, with a brilliant premise, intellectual storytelling and shrewdly written. All in all, The Conviction of Cora Burns is a sumptuous read throwing considerable light over issues we hardly talk about and adding pure bliss to a reader's delight. Also, the book is pretty inside and out. The illustrations before the beginning of each chapter have a vintage style to them with a lock and key alluring the reader enough to make her turn the pages in anticipation. Would rate it 5 🌟 without a second thought!
Profile Image for Anne.
305 reviews3 followers
May 29, 2019
I was drawn to this due to the Birmingham historical setting and the intriguing subject matter. The age old nature/nurture debate is drawn in a different way through the story of Cora and those close to her. The book is dark and creepy in places with a real sense of place. However I did feel the ending was a little rushed.

Thank you to Netgalley for a free copy in exchange for an honest review.
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